One: two-tracks, the dusty, lonely roads that follow the contours of the West. The one above reminds me of a long-ago hike taken from the low road to Zuni.
Two: hiking high and wild, to beat the heat and get up where breathing is a pleasure. Lately that has meant the Jemez Mountains, raked over by wildfires but springing up green with the monsoon rains. We just missed the wild raspberries: the bears got there first.
Shining and blackest black: the obsidian of the Jemez Mountains at one of its prehistoric sources.
The closest road had been closed for years—at least since the Las Conchas fire in 2011—and was blocked by the enormous trunks of dozens of burned and wind-fallen Ponderosas. We hiked the dusty three miles in.
For thousands of years, prehistoric miners knocked down big cobbles of obsidian into pieces more easily carried to distant pueblos, where they would be knapped into knives, scrapers, projectile points. What is left is debitage; whole acres of mesa glitter with a pavement of black glass.
In an area we’ve hiked scores of times, looking for a place for lunch, we climbed a little mesa that promised a good view. On a smooth sandstone ledge, unexpected, was a bedrock metate: the roughly-pecked surface where a woman had ground corn or wild-gathered seeds.
Around it were rough petroglyphs of a lizard and snakes: probably Puebloan, but so heavily coated with desert varnish that they looked Archaic. It was fine to sit where she had sat, looking out over the late winter piñon and sand, munching corn chips we had not had to grind ourselves.
Two of us and a dog were scrounging along the talus slope, looking for petroglyphs, when my companion said urgently, “Come quick!”
Peering out of a vertical crack in the cliff about ten feet up was a fox-faced ringtail cat. Huge, lemur-like sad eyes, big bat ears, a bushed-out tail that seemed to float behind it. Bold, totally silent. It crept out of the crack and down toward us, examined us thoroughly, then slipped away into the rocks and brush.
It was like an apparition but domestic, like a fox spirit. Quite unafraid of us. The dog, transfixed, did not bark.
We walked inover multicolored gravels eroded from some long-lost range. Some were petrified wood, glossy and tumble-polished. Among them a second generation of trees had grown; these too had fossilized, then eroded, and now looked simply like wood chips inexplicably turned to stone. Among them the ponderosas of today stood, living wood.
Next to a dissolving petrified log, recent woodcutters had left their beer cans and pile of slash. Old woodpile, new woodpile: the two looked remarkably alike, though the ancient one was yellow and bright as new wood, and the new one was gray.
All day long we looked south to the main drainage. It shone silver.
We spent the day traipsing around and about in something like a square mile and a half, as much vertical as horizontal, on constantly rough terrain. We entered and left on ancient trails not used since the invention of the internal combustion engine.
I couldn’t see how even a wagon could have gone where we did. Perhaps it was just people on foot. Later, horses or mules.
The trails did feel like trails, in the sense of “the logically easiest way to get up this challenging slope.”
Heavy logging in these mountains in the Twenties. Many trees were felled and left to checker into soft, rotten punk.
One enormous, old-growth Ponderosa had been spared the clear-cut because its trunk had split and split and split again, so it wouldn’t make straight lumber—perhaps a genetic trait? A beautiful and noble tree. I laid my face against it. It felt a living being, as though I could sense the subtle movement of xylem and phloem.
Maybe I could.
Betsy James on Writing, Art, and Walking in the Desert